I have to admit that until this disc arrived in my review pile I wasn’t even aware that John Sheppard had written very much church music in English. I say that as someone who has been involved with Anglican church music for most of his life. I had come across the Lord’s Prayer and the 2nd Service. I also know his most famous pieces like the three settings of In manus tuus and the vast motets Media Vita and Reges Tharsis, both recorded by the Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM016). The fact that this is Volume 1 is also intriguing.
I am a little puzzled about Sheppard’s career and musical development. I assume that he wrote much of his Latin church music whilst Henry VIII was alive - until 1547. Some may have been written during the brief reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558). Sheppard must have composed these, by comparison, quite cerebral English settings either in Henry’s last years and/or during the brief four years of Edward VI’s reign. Compared with the Latin works these English pieces can often seem, uninteresting or simply unsuccessful especially in the handling of close imitation. Indeed in his fascinating and extensive booklet notes the anonymous author often points out various weaknesses and anomalies. Some of these pieces may even be by Christopher Tye. Others are incomplete in the part-books and have needed crafty reconstruction.
The organ pieces - not clearly indicated on the CD - are, in some cases, nothing but very short exercises. In this category we find The man is Bleste, Quia Fecit, A Poynte, I Give you a new commandment and the later three Versus which, rather curiously, end the disc. Is this because Sheppard was working in an unfamiliar idiom? Yet he had a top job, being ‘Informator Choristarum’ at Magdalen College, Oxford from 1542 to 1548. That said, and I quote: “the richness and originality of his music was recognised in his own time: Morley included him in a list of eminent English composers” (Part 3 page 255 Plain and Easy Introduction to Music edited by Harman - Dent, 1952).
The disc includes anthems for four-part choir. These include the lovely opening oneO God be Merciful unto us which is described as “less successful” a setting than the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t entirely agree with this finding. There are anthems for men only like Christ our Pascal Lamb, an especially attractive piece. It’s quite homophonic and no doubt would have been much approved of by the Protestant authorities. We also encounter the complete First Service - both morning and evening prayer. Its sections consist of a Venite, a Te Deum, a Benedictus - not all of which would necessarily have been included in a single service - a Creed which goes in for text repetition in a surprisingly original way with much close knit polyphony and then a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. There is also the fascinating O Happy Dames described as a “clumsy contrafactum’ of a secular part-song of Sheppard. The words are by the unfortunate Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and the history of this piece is given in the notes.
As to the performances, the Academia Musica Choir pictured on the back, appears to consist of at least twenty-four young singers from various backgrounds. They are fresh, alert and are mostly fully engaged with the music although some pieces, like the Venite and the Benedictus lack excitement and drive. More seriously Aryan O Arji did not put right occasional intonation problems which have crept into some of the final takes. Diction certainly lacks clarity. Even so it’s all too common to criticise the diction of young choirs recorded in great spaces like Gloucester Cathedral. I wonder how they would have sounded in a college space which many of them may be more used to. More seriously from my own point of view is the lack of contrasting textures and dynamic colourings from track to track. The result wears on the ear.
Probably by this choir has have recorded Volume 2. I hope that some of the technical problems mentioned have been ironed out and perhaps they have used a different building. Individually, as far as can be made out, there are some fine voices here and this repertoire is rather rare and well worth exploring.
Incidentally the picture on the front is not the ‘Christ on the Cross window at Chester Cathedral’ as credited but, that same cathedral’s cloisters.
As a final question I would ask: has this recording helped to raise the status of this composer? The jury is still out on that one.